After traveling in Argentina, the countries of Paraguay and Uruguay are a welcome change from “huge!” Please be advised that the traveler to Paraguay from the USA and Canada is subject to that reciprocal visa fee: A single entry is US$65, while a multiple entry visa will run you $100. I suggest the multiple entry visa if you are planning on visiting the Iguaçu Falls to permit you to see this amazing site from Argentina or Brazil as well.
Paraguay is a landlocked country of 157,048 square miles that is situated between the two South American behemoths of Brazil and Argentina, also sharing a common border with Bolivia to the west. Currently Paraguay is considered to be the most inexpensive country in all of South America in purchasing power in US$, British £, and the troubled €. While this of course will make for some economical travel in the country, you will find that there is an overabundance of poverty, manifesting itself in the numerous beggars of the streets of Asunción and other cities and towns.
The capital, Asunción, is one of the oldest cities in all of South America. Founded in 1537, a mere 46 years after Columbus first landed in the New World, it established itself as the “Mother City” of the region. I must state up front here that Asunción is not your typical tourist town. There are plenty of accommodations to be had at very reasonable prices, but unless you are interested in the history of the old Spanish empire, there really is not much to do here. The historic architecture in the city is quite interesting. Sites of note are the church of La Encarnación, the Metropolitan Cathedral, and the National Pantheon of the Heroes. Like all Latin American nations, their heroes are revered with monuments, street names, and schools being named in honor of their memory.
Some of the other attractions are the Godoi Museum and the National Museum of Fine Art, the old Senate building, Palacio de López, and Casa de la Independencia. The main street in town, Calle Palma, is the home of many well-preserved historical buildings, homes, and plazas, where you will find shops, sidewalk cafés, and restaurants featuring local and international dishes. In 2002 the new National Congress was built with a $20 million gift from Taiwan, and it is arguably the most imposing piece of modern architecture in the city. (Note: Imposing is not necessarily pretty!)
Paraguay is divided by the Paraguay River into two distinct regions: The eastern Paraneña region, which is home to the vast majority of the population, and the sparse Grand Chaco in the west. The area around Asunción is known as the Central Hill Belt, while the Paraná Plateau makes up the forested highland of the southeast. This is where you will find the busy port of entry from Brazil, Ciudad del Este, also an access point to the world renowned Iguaçu Falls, the dramatic cascade over the edge of the plateau.
The semi-arid Grand Chaco unfortunately is under attack from two fronts. While being the home to the last remaining pure Guaraní Indians, the area is now being overwhelmed by loggers, cattle ranchers, and to no small degree the Mennonites, which in their quest to keep their woman and children subjugated, find themselves having to remove themselves further and further away from civilization. They, too, are acquiring huge parcels of land, which they proceed to clear to build up their dairy industries, leading to the displacement of many hundreds of Guaraní. The Grand Chaco is of interest only to those who are willing to forego most comforts, traveling in second-class buses along pothole-strewn roads. However, there are many isolated photo opportunities to be had by the adventurous nomad.
Uruguay, in stark contrast to more tropical eastern Paraguay, has a much more moderate climate, with warm summers and the other three seasons varying between cool and cold, with windy rainy days being the norm over much of the country. Uruguay currently has a highly respected socialist president, one interested in helping all his fellow citizens get a good education. Every schoolchild in the country has one of those $100 laptops championed by Nicholas Negroponte’s laptop.org .
Uruguay is by no means as inexpensive as Paraguay, but well worth the trip. Many visitors arrive by Buquebus from Buenos Aires to either Colonia del Sacramento or Montevideo. The author’s favorite place in all of Uruguay is the charming historical Old Quarter of Colonia del Sacramento, or just Colonia, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995. (I recently seriously considered moving there, but ended up across the Río de la Plata and way down the road in Patagonia instead.)
Colonia is the oldest town in all of Uruguay, having been founded by the Portuguese in 1680. It was a hotly disputed area between 1680 and 1828, when the current Eastern Republic of Uruguay was formed. It changed back and forth between Portuguese and Spanish dominion no less 8 times and 3 more times between Brazil, Argentina, and finally the freed Eastern Republic of Uruguay.
Much of this history is preserved in the old quarter, where there are a number of museums holding artifacts from the early colonial era. It is possible to buy a single ticket, very inexpensively, which covers admission to multiple venues. The area is also well represented by the culinary arts, and the local wines and beers are freely available. While strolling through the wonderfully maintained area, you will marvel at the beautiful old vehicles that are parked permanently in various strategic locations.
The capital city of Montevideo is a couple of hours via a very comfortable bus ride through the countryside from Colonia. Riding the bus in the country is perhaps the cheapest way of getting around this small nation of only 3.5 million people spread out over a little more than 68,000 square miles. The population of 51 per square mile is very misleading, as almost two thirds of the nation’s population is concentrated in a band along the southern reaches from the capital to Punta del Este.
Montevideo offers a great amount of entertainment, from its many museums, to the gorgeous Teatro Solís, where international touring companies perform throughout the year, to the ever-present Uruguayan Tango, which is showcased in many venues.
Montevideo is known for its unique take on Carnival, and anyone who would like to get a real taste of the spirit of Uruguay must visit in February to witness the marvelous Murgas. This is a very popular form of musical guerilla theater in which the performers play the role of the court jester, wearing very elaborate costumes and masks. During the period of the military dictatorship, traditional Murga ensembles ventured into the political arena, with several of them being arrested and tortured for mocking some of the junta’s leaders and their outrageously ridiculous uniforms. One of those groups, Araca La Cana, is still revered for its biting left wing social commentary.
While in Montevideo’s bustling downtown area, surely you will make your way to the Plaza Independencia and see the incredible edifice that is an icon of the city. This is Palacio Salvo, on the corner of Avenida 18 de Julio and the plaza. The building was designed by an Italian immigrant named Mario Palanti and was completed in 1928. Originally intended to hold a number of private residences and a hotel, it now is host to a mix of private residences and offices, having never fulfilled its designed purpose. The upper floors tower 300 feet over the plaza, having been a silent witnesses to history.
To explore the beauty of this fascinating country, a rental car is highly recommended, as the curious traveler will want to go to many off the beaten track destinations that can only be reached by being in charge of one’s own destiny. However, for those traveling the backcountry and upcountry areas with less ambition, buses will take you everywhere along their routes in comfort and for very little money. The central bus station in Montevideo is Tres Cruces, the terminal for all intercity and rural buses. This modern, very user-friendly station is home to the excellent Restaurant La Mostaza, open from 6:00 am to 2:00 am, as well as several other casual eateries, many shops, and a very well stocked supermarket. At the end of your visit to Uruguay, you can catch a direct bus from here to locations in Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Paraguay.
The beach resorts heading east from the capital are easily accessible, ranging in style from the 1930’s throwback of Piriápolis to the shimmering international glitz of Punta del Este.
In exploring the eastern part of the country along the Atlantic Coast, there are dozens of far less developed beaches and small towns nestled between the sand dunes that stretch all the way up to the Brazilian border. Not to be missed are La Paloma, La Pedrera, the accessible only by giant 4 wheel drive truck gem that is Cabo Polonio, Barra de Valizas, Punta del Diablo, La Coronilla, and Barra de Chui on the Brazilian border. Right off highway 9, you may also want to visit the tranquil Fortaleza de Santa Teresa, which borders the Santa Teresa National Park.
But this country, with its rural gaucho traditions, has more to offer than its popular beaches, which overflow with tourists between Christmas and Easter. The towns in the interior also have much to offer the visitor, from the Swiss settlement of Nueva Helvecia, where you can taste some of the best cheeses in all of the Americas, up to the border town of Artigas, where some of the finest gem grade amethysts are mined along with many other minerals – come prepared to be overwhelmed by the natural beauty of the crystals coming out of the ground in this region. Mine tours are available. Also not to be missed is the quaint small city of Minas in the La Valleja department, a short ride from the capital. One of the country’s largest breweries has a park that is a short antique bus ride from the center, where good food and good beer go hand in hand. While there, do not miss the opportunity to stroll in the park while eating an ice cream cone. You will fit right in.
Next stop: Brazil! This wildly diverse country has become much more visible on the world stage in the last few years. There really is so much more to this, the fifth largest country in the world by geographic size as well as by population than lively São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival and its mini-bikini saturated beaches. This country has been on a huge economic upswing, which started when Lula da Silva was elected president almost nine years ago. After his election, this unrepentant socialist scared the USA into curtailing trade with his nation, forcing the Brazilians to accept China’s overtures in trade, in turn growing the economy to such a degree that US President Obama had to visit Brazil after Lula left office to proclaim to the new Presidenta Dilma Rousseff that “the US wants to be one of your best customers!” My, how times have changed! The world has even invented a new acronym for these types of large emerging market nations, BRIC, standing for Brazil, Russia, India and China. (Sounds a little better that the one used for the de-emerging nations in Europe, the PIIGS, Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain.)
Traveling in the mighty nation of Brazil is challenging. Remember that it is the only country in the Americas where Portuguese is spoken exclusively, and do not expect anyone to speak English to you. To enter Brazil, you need that pesky visa, obtainable only at a genuine Brazilian diplomatic office rather than at the port of entry, which will set you back $140 per person. Inquire at the same time whether your recent travels will require you to obtain a yellow fever vaccination or not. Unless arriving via a long bus ride from a neighboring country, you will most likely arrive in São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro, both worthy destinations for the curious nomad, offering an immensity of diversity and cultural events year round. Because Brazil fought hard to land the Fútbol World Cup for 2014 as well as the 2016 Olympic Games, the nation has committed a total of one trillion dollars to the improvement of its infrastructure. Only time will tell if this is a wise investment in its future, but you as the traveler stands to benefit from these improvements, regardless.
For the purpose of these articles, which are to discover the nations in South America, I will leave the exploration of the big metropolises up to the individual traveler and introduce the explorer to the more off the beaten path destinations. For an introduction to the tropical colonial northeast of the country, may I recommend my article in Expat Daily News? There you will find much useful information about that wondrous region of Brazil.
The unique capital of Brazil is a city that is of particular interest. Brazília was conceived and planned in 1956 to help develop the interior of the country. It was a master planned city from the very beginning, now home to close to four million people in the metropolitan area. The site selected was the Planalto Central, with an elevation of 3850 ft. It benefits from a relatively stable climate, with average daytime temperature ranging from 79° to 81°, and average rainfall of between 0.8 in during June and July (winter) to 9.4 in December. It officially became Brazil’s capital on 22 April 1960, and 27 years later was selected to become a member of the exclusive UNESO world heritage sites. The design included many spectacular modern buildings and monuments, and it stands out as one of the best laid out cities in the world. For the visitor, there are many cultural diversions available. Theatres, museums, and musical venues as well as numerous large parks will keep one occupied for a good while. Two items of distinction are the Cultural Complex of Brasilia and the Amazing Cathedral of Brasília. To many visitors, being in Brasília reminds them of being in futuristic movie.
It is my desire to send my readers on an incomparable adventure, crossing the continent from east to west by traveling up the longest river in the world (now firmly established to be longer than the Nile). This trip can be accomplished in one of two ways: Try to find a boat in Belem (difficult), or take a bus or plane to Manaus from whence there are continuous departures for upriver destinations such as the Peruvian port of Iquitos.
Once you reach Manaus, plan on spending a few days in this vibrant city, exploring its culture and diversity. Making arrangements to travel the Amazon from here will not be difficult. There are several different ways to accomplish the voyage, from hammock class to luxury accommodations on one of the many ships designed to accommodate tourists. Many will offer small daytrips from the mother ship, up through small tributaries to visit indigenous villages or to some isolated areas to observe wildlife. The photographic opportunities are many. I suggest that you always have a watertight bag available to protect your equipment from the elements. If opting for the long trip going up the river, be aware that there is also a reverse version of this same trip available, flowing with the current from Iquitos toward the mouth of the river, which will be just as nice, but with less engine noise as your floating home will be doing more leisurely drifting down the Amazon. Whichever route and class you choose, you will be richly rewarded with sights and sounds heretofore only experienced in National Geographic specials.
If and when you end up in Iquitos, there are many small tours of the region that will acquaint you with even more of the inhabitants of the region, whether they be fish, reptiles, mammals, or the few remaining indigenous settlements scattered throughout the interior. And you have now reached Peru, one of the region’s most illustrious historical countries, home of the Inca Empire, which once ruled the northwestern part of South America.
In the next installment on the South American continent, we will head to Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela. Until then, happy trails.
About the author: Jamie Douglas is an Adventurer, Writer and Photographer with an amazing array of Nikon equipment, and a lifetime of experience traveling and documenting. He currently enjoys the great weather and fine wines of Mendoza, Argentina, and edits Expat Daily News and Expat Daily News Latin America.